I walked along the disused track – the rails removed, the sleepers gone – the sleepers that made it so difficult to walk – did one step on them? Did one step between them? Did one walk two sleepers at a time? No method seemed comfortable. But now it was easy – just easy gravel track, smooth and smooth. I was trying to find the point under the track where the other tunnel was – the one that, as boys, we walked through from the first rugby field to the other field, the one that we took at weekends, carrying matches and tins of beans and sausages and pans and sliced white bread to the woods beyond, to make fires and try and make cigarettes of paper and dried leaves.
I could not find where the bridge might have been below and I peered through the bushes and barbed wire, where the playing field had been and where I could remember being in a rugby match and staying down after some tackle or brawl, and staying down to enjoy the mud and the macho screams of the headmaster’s wife, standing pitch-side beside the Latin master, morose and elsewhere, his bum propped on a shooting stick, as she sought to encourage my sporting endeavour. I felt at last that I had found the bridge and looked through the swaying leaves at horses grazing in that field where I had once been, and at the sheep lost in grass-thought. I was not really that interested and knew I was not in the right place for what I had come to do, but I was biding my time, I was feeling the contours of the moment, I was giving me and whatever spirit that might be there – time.
I went back along the path to the steps back down to the lane and followed the lane further up the hill. Things got more and more redolent – the steep grassy banks, the orange-brown leaves in the lane, the rushing of the leaves overhead – the sodden, desiccated autumn leaves – the concrete gully down the middle of the track, the gradual disappearance of the tarmac to red-brown earth – rich-shit earth. And then I was amazed. Was that another new thing? I had no recollection of that. How could I have ambled down here on a pony in a line of ponies, in a brief respite from my general panic with riding lessons, along this bit where the horses had to tread carefully down the hill, time and again, and not noticed the cemetery. Or was it new? No, those were Victorian gravestone angels – the stones were deep-greyed, the stone was mossed and flaking. There was a cemetery beyond it that was newer – the marble and stone was still surgical and raw, the feelings still sharp and crude, but this closer cemetery, with its little gate from the lane and its rusty Victorian oval arch and shreds of lantern-holding at the top, this had been here from the nineteenth century or earlier. How had I blocked that out from my mind? Why? How had I never looked to the other side from within the bounds of the school. Or was it that something had died here? Was it that I had closed my mind to that dying and to this dying too? To all dying.
I walked on up the lane, up the hill. The bank to my right, to the wood, was less and less, and the woods to my right still familiar – very familiar. This was a beautiful place. As I climbed higher up the hill, I thought how there is that old cliché that things and places from youth always seem so much smaller when returned to, in adult life. But the trees, the length of the track seemed immense. I started to feel breathless; the rain trickled off my hat and down my neck. Did they really make us walk and run all this way – did we really walk all this way, up through the woods?
And it occurred to me that now I was 47 and it was October and that I had first come to this place from India in September when I was 7 – almost exactly forty years ago. And the first time that I had walked this lane must have been in September, 40 years ago. We had come here in a troop of the youngest years in the school to pick blackberries – we had been brought here by the headmaster’s wife to pick blackberries for our supper – and the person who picked the most blackberries would be the winner – there was always to be a competition, as I would discover.
The trees here closer to the ridge were starting to hiss and thrash. There was a sixties bungalow on my right that I had never ‘seen’ before – it was squat and grey – self-effacing and delighted to be in this place, in this place far, far away.
I walked past the place where the blackberrying probably must have occurred – when I was seven – and now I could see no sign of blackberry bushes – but maybe I was a month too late. As I walked past here I shut my mind, in part, to the memory of that moment when we were told to pick blackberries and that whoever picked the most would be the winner. And I picked blackberries because I wanted to show what I could do – I wanted to be the winner. And two boys – two older boys said to me, ‘why not put your blackberries in our pot and then we’ll win, because if we work together we’ll have the most blackberries and then we’ll be the winners’. I thought this was a good idea and, at the same time, I was slightly scared and didn’t want to argue, but thought this is good that they like me, that they want me ‘with’ them. And I poured all my blackberries into their pot, white glistening pot – their pot was more beautiful than mine – mine and thine – and the blackberries fell black-red, ripe and glistening, one after the other, one after the other, into the white pot. And I went back to picking and got a whole lot more in my pot, and I went back to those boys and said, ‘here, I’ve got some more to put in our pot’.
As I walked, the rain on my hat, I sensed the child flit in the trees, flit in the branches of the trees.
‘Our pot?’ they said. ‘It’s our pot – not yours.’
‘But I put my blackberries in your pot and you said that’s how we would win – that’s how, between us, we would have the most blackberries.’
‘Well, maybe, but it’s our pot now – it’s not yours.’
I stopped walking and looked to my right and sensed the child again, now moving along the ground between the trees. A silver presence, a phantom of the undergrowth, a puck, an ariel, a feral child in the wood.
‘But you said that I should put my berries in with yours – we’d work together.’
I appealed, I think, to the headmaster’s wife but she felt no sympathy with my story. She no doubt felt that it was time to learn. I went back to picking blackberries, knowing that I could not win, that my collection was going to be pathetic, that I would look a fool. I could not think of India, I could not think of my dog, nor of Angus the ‘bearer’, I could not think of my mother, I could not feel in confidence but only in the sad negotiation of need. I was now sucked into the tunnel.
The wind was raring and savaging in the trees as I walked hesitantly to the ridge, the summered ridge of trees at the edge of the wood. I stopped and sat on the style at the corner of the wood where a path branched off to the right along the edge of the trees, and where the lane narrowed now to a slight track between the green and sappy growth.
And I sat and said to the child: ‘I am so sorry, so sorry, for abandoning you here.
Are you angry with me?
I had no idea that you were here.
I had no idea that I had left you here.
Is it frightening here in all this sun and wind and rain, in all this heat and cold, in all this hissing and roaring of this wood?’